Sony // 1978 // 121 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // July 21st, 2009
It's about never giving up hope.
Based on the biography of Billy Hayes, an American who spent time in a Turkish prison, Midnight Express is the film that gave every mother nightmares about her son or daughter traveling abroad, setting the Turkish tourism industry back by half a century. Now thirty years later, the film loses much of its shock value replaced by a distinct feeling that perhaps the Turks were maybe, possibly, somehow misrepresented?
Now on Blu-ray, Midnight Express (Blu-ray) will allow people to experience the cultural delights of a Turkish prison as only Oliver Stone could dream up.
When hapless American tourist Billy Hayes (Brad Davis, Chariots of Fire) is caught smuggling hashish out of Turkey in 1978, he is apprehended and sentenced to a prison sentence in a Turkish prison. He doesn't speak the language, doesn't understand the rules, and barely clings to his sanity as the oppression and violence erode his soul. As his minor offense constantly gets upgraded into more serious charges by the legal system, his small stay soon becomes a life sentence. Desperate for survival, his only hope is to catch a ride on the "midnight express" and escape the prison -- a feat easier said than done.
Jokes about Turkish prisons notwithstanding, Midnight Express is an infamous film, its dark and notorious imagery firmly embedded in the minds of an entire generation of Americans, telling them in big neon letters never to go to Turkey. It is bleak, depressing, and soulless, a barrage of horrible circumstance and never-ending torment upon a confused and disoriented American tourist, beaten and humiliated within an inch of his life and sanity. It is a marathon cinematic experience, but one whose time has passed in terms of cultural sensitivity and xenophobic dread. Thirty years have passed, and when viewed through modern eyes, Midnight Express stands out most as a shockingly brutal and entirely false depiction of Turkish culture. A corrupt legal system, a brutal and oppressive prison system violating all manner of human rights, a sea of dark-skinned faces leering and grinning and looking for any opportunity to steal your money and rape you in the shower. Last time I checked my Lonely Planet travel guide, Turkey had none of these things listed as "attractions."
Embarrassingly exploitative, Midnight Express sells the fear of dark-skinned people who speak a different language as objects of terror, of dread and fear normally reserved for a horror film. The real Turkey is nothing like the one portrayed in Midnight Express any more than summer camps bear real-life resemblance to Crystal Lake, where a machete-wielding maniac murders nubile teens in the dark. That didn't stop the Turks from being seriously upset at this mainstream Hollywood film showing the entire country to be barbaric savages. It may be based on a true story, but much of the plot is entirely fantasy, exaggerated and sensationalized to make the most dramatic and soul-crushing film possible. Both director Parker and screenwriter Oliver Stone years later made public apologies for their demonizing of the Turkish people in the film. Even the real-life Billy Hayes has criticized the film for its excess and deviations from his real experiences -- certainly bad, but nowhere near the ones depicted here.
To take audiences through such a brutal and taxing cinematic experience, to smear a culture within an inch of its life, certainly there must be a purpose behind it all, a reason; a commentary on the nature of the human condition, or of indomitable hope. The only real moral in Midnight Express is to not get caught smuggling drugs out of Turkey. It certainly isn't that drugs are bad, or that the crime itself was wrong. Billy isn't penitent -- he's just sorry he got caught. His situation is a construct for sensationalism, an excuse to show how depraved and disturbing a situation could be dreamed up in a fantasy Turkish prison. Moreover, there's no critique of Turkey here specific to the country. It might as well be "generic Muslim country." It is hard to get past this single-minded nastiness, this worrying sense of Midnight Express being naught but a showcase for the worst elements of the human condition, of greed and pettiness and selfishness and ruthlessness. This is "dog eat dog" taken to the most absurd levels, terrifying and unsettling in its viciousness.
It's far-fetched and unbelievable, absolutely; certainly an unpleasant film to watch, to be sure. Yet Midnight Express lives on hauntingly in the collective mentality of every person who has seen the film, of everyone taken in by its powerful imagery, cinematography, and claustrophobic sense of dread. You can challenge it on the facts, but the sense of oppression lingers like a bad odor long after the film credits roll. The imagery of Billy descending to animalistic status, tortured and abused and subjugated are undeniably powerful, so much so that we don't care the film wasn't even shot in Turkey, but in Malta. Director Alan Parker composes a film of striking visual style and haunting shadows, of furtive glances and anxiety at every turn. It is a film of madness, of a system so corrupt it offers no chance of redemption -- good behavior is ignored and bad behavior is brutally punished. There is no chance of release, of parole, of a magical overturning. What adds an especially authentic and anxious tone to the film is that the majority of spoken Turkish dialogue is not subtitled; since Billy has no idea what anyone is saying to or about him, neither do we. The entire film is tense and confused, a cacophony of accents and misunderstandings.
For all its cultural insensitivities and downright nasty stereotypes, Midnight Express is a film whose cinematic language extends beyond its own script. Adapted from Hayes' own novel by a then up-and-coming Oliver Stone, the film is taut and precise, offering little in the way of redemption or sympathetic characters, only interested in showcasing exactly how bad a fantasy stint in a Turkish prison could be. The film itself is much more profound by way of its expert direction and composition. It is often difficult to sympathize with Billy, but certain poignant sequences of his despair and degeneration are difficult to erase from your cerebral cortex once witnessed. Time may have made Midnight Express a challenging film to appreciate in a world of global communication and Wikipedia searches, but an undeniably powerful drama all the same.
The 1080p presentation is impressive for a film shot in the late 1970s, softer than one expects from modern Blu-ray titles but still impressively compared to older versions available. Composed of heavy earth tones and browns, there is a haze and murkiness prevailing over most sequences that tend to give the picture a flat, grainy appearance. Black levels are deep, and color tones are muted. The picture is clean and free from almost all defect or print damage, safe for a few specks now and again -- it still looks and feels like a film from 1978, but the fidelity offered by Blu-ray makes the most of the source material. Purists should be pleased.
Audio offers up a myriad of language options, but two specifically for English: the original mono track and a new TrueHD 5.1 mix. Interestingly enough, at times I preferred the original mono track; it is bright, sharp and more treble but surprisingly resonant and functional with clear dialogue and excellent ambient fidelity. The TrueHD mix is smoother, better-rounded in tone and heavy in bass, but fails to take advantage of its rear or side channels -- the mix is squarely in the center. The score and ambient noises are intense; the constant thumping of Billy's heart, the throbbing bass that rises and pulses like a crescendo, a sad and melancholic piano giving way to pulsing 1970s-style synthesizers.
Supplements are near-identical to the recent Midnight Express: 30th Anniversary Edition standard definition DVD release. We get an informative but stiff commentary track with director Alan Parker; three featurettes entitled "The Producers," "The Production," and "The Finished Film" (each about 25 minutes in length); a short vintage feature, "The Making of Midnight Express"; and a photo gallery. The disc is also BD-Live enabled, so players with Internet connections can do...something interesting. I wasn't able to do anything but download a few unrelated trailers. Also included is a fascinating photo essay (irritatingly glued into the "digibook" packaging) called "Anatomy of a Film: The Making of Midnight Express," offering intimate insight from the director into the making of the film.
After sitting through the psychological roller coaster that is Midnight Express, repeated viewings are unattractive if only because the film offers up nothing in the way of redemption, a heroic protagonist, or anything resembling salvation. Billy is a stupid kid who gets caught doing something idiotic, and the point of the film almost seems to be that his punishment and systematic torture at the hands of Turkish prison guards is undeserved, because hey, it's the 1970s, and why are we getting so upset about drugs anyway? This would be a fine enough point, except that Billy waltzes through an international airport with two kilograms of hashish (over seventy ounces). So yeah, he's going to jail for a long time. After watching his impassioned, furious speech delivered in court, you kind of think maybe he has it coming. Midnight Express is a good film, a powerful drama, but so hateful and sensationalized it's hard to understand why the filmmakers wanted to make it, or why audiences would ever want to own it on Blu-ray to watch again.
Infamous and controversial, Midnight Express loses much of its shine by the passing of time illuminating uncomfortable cultural insensitivities, but the depictions of prison despair and human suffering are as profound and memorable as ever. Fact-checking aside, Midnight Express is a powerful drama; certainly a title worth seeing at least once, if only to appreciate the visceral and emotional dramatic impact of its narrative and filmmaking.
First-time viewers should seek out the Blu-ray version, but as for double-dipping, anyone in possession of the previous release will find little incentive to upgrade an already great-looking SD version to a marginally-improved Blu-ray version with identical supplemental features.
Not guilty on cinematic charges, but absolutely guilty of decimating the Turkish tourism industry.
Review content copyright © 2009 Adam Arseneau; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (French)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Photo Gallery